The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes Stephen Pinker

Allen Lane, pp.832, 30

It has become a cliché that the great increase in material wealth over the centuries has not been accompanied by any corresponding moral advance. Human nature, it is said, remains the same — with the implication that much of it is pretty nasty. Here, however, comes a leading evolutionary biologist, Stephen Pinker, to claim that human violence has decreased over the millennia and centuries.

He is in a good position to make that claim, having previously got into trouble with the Left by showing that we are ‘hard wired’ for much of our behaviour and that it is not all due to environmental influences. In this 800-page book, which encompasses everything from anthropology and ancient history to brain scanning and empirical psychology, he has a fine shot at making good his claim.

How can this be true after two world wars, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the rise of  religion-backed terrorism, not to speak of the lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan and many other horrors? The big mistake made by the fashionable pessimists is their failure to treat deaths and other results of violence as a proportion of the relevant population.  Another factor is media distortion: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’

The death-toll in the second world war is estimated at over 50 million, but adjusted for population ranks only ninth in the scale of violence. Easily the first is the Alushan civil war in eighth-century China, which resulted in the loss of two thirds of the empire’s population and a sixth of the world’s population.

The annihilation of native Americans comes seventh and the Atlantic slave trade eighth. The modern European record is more debatable. A bloodbath during the 17th-century wars of religion was followed by a bumpy decline and then a more moderate peak during the Napoleonic Wars. There was then the biggest bump of all in the first half of the 20th century, followed by a remarkable 65-year-long period of peace among the great powers, to which Pinker believes we do not pay enough attention.

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We forget how many ‘realists’ regarded nuclear war as inevitable or how many novelists such as Nevil Shute depicted an utterly devastated planet. We obviously need to keep our fingers crossed, but it is some mercy that we have been spared so far. The lessening toll of war-related deaths has been accompanied by the lessening of domestic violence, including homicides, and cruel and unjust punishments, on which the author puts a much needed emphasis.
There is an important point of logic here. There is no pool of suffering any more than there is a pool of happiness, as some utilitarian political economists wrongly supposed. A single person being tortured or shot by an armed militia should not be regarded as a tenth as bad as ten people suffering similarly. The way to look at it is in terms of probabilities. A fall in the rate of violent deaths makes it less probable that any one person will suffer in this way; and I would interpret probabilities in terms of fair betting odds. It is much less likely that you, dear reader, will be killed or wounded in a terrorist attack than you would have been accosted by a highwayman in the 18th century or press- ganged into the Navy.

Pinker spans a long period. The first and most clearly established trend away from violence occurred in the shift from hunter-gathering — which, despite romantic misconceptions, was characterised by lethal raiding and feuding — to agriculture-based societies. This started 5,000 years ago, and is estimated to have involved a fivefold decrease in violent deaths. Much later there came what Norbert Elias called the civilising process, namely a shift from squabbling feudal territories to centralised states claiming a monopoly of judicial power.
Then, and partly overlapping, came the European Enlightenment which saw the first organised attempts to abolish despotisms, slavery, duelling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment and cruelty to animals, together with the first stirrings of systematic pacifism.

It is no use cultural pessimists such as John Gray pointing out that Enlightenment writers did not always agree with each other or live up to their billing. Surprise, surprise! To refute Pinker’s thesis he would have to work through his data. Then have come the long peace and its aftermath, providing what Pinker admits are more tenuous, but existing, grounds for optimism.
The biggest counter-argument to Pinker which I believe he would acknowledge is that with the possible exception of the decay of hunter-gathering, the decay in violence covers a tiny fraction of the 75,000 years or so in which the human species supposedly existed in its present form. He is not a historical determinist, and there is still all to play for.

Pinker analyses five inner demons that dispose people to violence. The first is instrumental violence as a means to end. In some ways this is the easiest to deal with. He might have quoted Robert Peel (by far the best role model among Conservative prime ministers and far superior to the over-
rated Disraeli), that the best way to eliminate harsh punishments is to increase the probability of detection.

The other four demons are more difficult to combat. They are dominance — the urge for authority, prestige, glory and power; revenge; sadism; and utopian ideology. Ranged against them are four ‘better angels’: empathy, which enables us to feel others’ pain in a genuine, non-Clintonesque way; self-control; the moral sense which at  times governs human interactions; and the cultivation of reason as an antidote to parochial vantage points.

The struggle between the demons and the angels is not predetermined. But there are some forces on the side of the angels: the Leviathan state already mentioned; international commerce as a positive sum game, which it still is, despite the activities of those whom Harold Macmillan called ‘banksters’; feminisation, which helps, ‘since violence is largely a male pastime’; and cosmopolitanism, in which literacy, mobility and even the mass media can expand people’s circle of sympathy.

Pinker mercifully does not regard it as his task to propose policies; but he does quote with approval the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s three conditions for ‘perpetual peace’. They are ‘republicanism’; self-enforcing international law and world citizenship, in which people from any one country should be free to live peaceably in others. There are problems of terminology surrounding all three. Pinker

would substitute ‘democracy’ for republicanism. I wouldn’t. The appropriate expression is something like ‘an open society under the rule of law’, admittedly a mouthful.

This last point brings me to one quibble. Pinker accepts too uncritically the pretensions of American political ‘scientists’ (he never puts in the quotation marks), in particular their dictum that democracies do not go to war with each other. This ignores the strong elements of democracy in at least four of the main European powers that embarked on the slaughter of the first world war. There is no evidence that, had the franchise been wider or the residual power of the monarchs less, that war fever would have been any weaker. Bertrand Russell recorded his dismay at the warlike enthusiasm of the British public, and German and Austrian writers recorded similar sentiments. The statistical evidence for the assertion is based on minor wars between minor states in recent decades. And even if democracies now do not fight wars with each other, they most certainly fight proxy wars in other countries.

It would be odd if there were nothing to criticise in as wide-ranging a book as Better Angels. It would be a sign that one had not taken it seriously.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated